by Leigh Alexander The notoriously insular and fickle Brooklyn music scene has had its doors blown off, and the culprit is – NES sound chip music?
What's That, Now?
Chiptune music – tunes made using hacked sound chips from video game hardware – is as well-known to many gamers who snap to the nostalgic bleeps and bloops as it is known to fans of creative electronica. Artists like Bit Shifter, Nullsleep, Minusbaby and many others are honored scions of the chip scene. It wasn't until an unassuming band of surprisingly young (early twenties!) fresh-faced boys began bringing intense rhythm and joyful tunes from an NES chip — coupled with whip-sharp rock — into Williamsburg's feverish indie music hub that something changed. A road for chiptunes music to reach a wider audience began to open up.
They're called Anamanaguchi, and bleeding-edge culture rag L Magazine has named them one of New York City's ‘8 Bands To Watch' for the year, along with other up-and-coming indie rock heard-ofs like Savoir Adore and The Beets. The L does call the chip integration "a gimmick," although you can't blame a more conventionally hip publication for being not-so-wise to the longstanding and broad chiptunes landscape. This includes the work of the 8bitpeoples collective and its 50-plus strong list of participating artists, many of whom play the celebrated Blip Festival every year.
The Chiptune Scene
Chiptune artists form a rich community. Some play NES chips, others play Game Boys, and some even play Atari STs and the like. Their performances are usually accompanied by artistic visuals – picture a performer playing frenetic, throbbing sounds on a hacked Game Boy wired up to a sound system in front of a projection screen lit up with a pulsewave of damaged pixels, and you've got the idea.
But this community's been historically something of a private one – although video game fans often easily recognize and immediately adhere to the retro sounds that comprise the sonic landscape, the majority of chiptune artists have always been strict about divorcing themselves from associations with simple video game nostalgia. They don't play "video game music," and they don't want you to assume they do.
When it comes to Anamanaguchi, The L says a they're "a band that should be heard by everyone, and not just devotees of a micro-genre." You may be getting the idea that there's something different about these kids. Rather than restricting themselves to the occasional chip-specific festival with other soundchip artists – although they play those, too – Anamanaguchi does shows at New York's coolest venues alongside a diverse range of popular rock, hip-hop and DJ acts, and the band – most of them still students – are fast becoming the talk of the town.
Who Are These Kids?
"We're using the 8-bit sounds as a piece of the picture instead of the whole thing," says Peter Berkman, who plays the band's lead guitar and does the majority of the songwriting and soundchip programming.
"It was definitely a deliberate decision, but not one that I made thinking I'd be able to 'get more fans' or something," he adds. "It all stems from having a really musical background, I think. In electronic music there are always artists who strive to be more technical than musical, and we're definitely the other way around."
In fact, Berkman's primary influences aren't chiptune artists at all, but bands like Weezer, Seattle-based emo pioneers Sunny Day Real Estate, and Omaha indie rockers Cursive. So what drew him to start messing around with NES soundchips? "Definitely the nostalgia aspect and the youthful simplicity of the sounds - it's a great, happy aesthetic," he says.
By adhering to the tenets of the chiptune scene while attracting a broader set of music fans with their upbeat rock sound, Anamanaguchi is forming an unlikely bridge between video game hardware and indie rock fans in New York.
"That's kind of the story of my life, being a bridge between a 'nerd' and 'cool'," concedes Berkman, who spent nearly an entire year of free time in high school with friends making Weezer covers on a four track, eating donuts and playing Mega Man X and Contra III. "I'm kind of like a weird hybrid between Steve Urkel and Will Smith."
"I was never the kind of kid who would go out drinking in high school, but I also wasn't the kind of kid who shut myself out from everybody else - I guess I was really lucky that I had an awesome core group of friends who all recognized how strange suburban life is," he says.
Berkman says the minimalism inherent in programming soundchips helps composition come to the forefront. "8-bit music is almost like the 'punk rock' of electronic music, where everything has been getting so highly produced and complex that sometimes it's important to just go back to the basics and work with very simple building blocks," he says.
In that way, this musical migration toward lo-fi chiptune sounds as a rebellion against electronic music's high production values can be likened not only to punk rock, but to the increasing popularity of simple, pixel art platformers like Cave Story and Spelunky as an escape from the graphics-intensive, triple-A style that's become dominant in the video game scene.
But although the production of Anamanaguchi's music and that of other chiptune artists might have originally been motivated by a fondness for video game hardware, Berkman joins other chip artists in rejecting further associations with the game scene. "I grew up playing video games as much as the next Generation 2K-bro, but I view it as something that's separate from my music," he says. "I think it's also important to make the distinction that we aren't writing video game music — I'm thinking way more about [The Beach Boys'] Brian Wilson and old Rivers Cuomo [of Weezer] than Hip Tanaka — who rules, though — when I'm composing."
Other chip artists "sound literally nothing like video game music and no doubt get frustrated when people don't get past that," he says.
Bridging Separate Worlds
Berkman also maintains a fascination with what he calls "absurd things — bargain bin VHS tapes, public access TV shows" – and says the juxtaposition between the sounds of an old Nintendo and updated, upbeat rock music is "another one of those absurd, surreal things that shouldn't work, but totally does."
Indie rock show listings bible OhMyRockness, a home base for anyone and everyone who follows local music in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, agrees: "The music Anamanaguchi creates is not really meant to be a whimsical nod to our video game playing youth. First and foremost, they're about rocking you out, but they're also part of a larger experiment to make a big sound that rises above the limitations of the out-dated and limiting hardware the band uses."
Anamanaguchi has provided an example that helps other chiptune artists diversify their music, and helps music fans diversify their listening. Damon Hardjowirogo of local two-piece act Starscream says Anamanaguchi's Power Supply EP "acted as a gateway to the chip music scene … The original idea for the band was a two-piece of electric bass and drums," says Hardjowirogo. Now, he and his bandmate George Stroud both play Game Boys in addition to drums and bass (oh, and they wear Transformers masks).
Anamanaguchi's success, accessibility and all-around good cheer might be a good model for game fans looking to diversify their interests. "As a band though, we definitely have some cred in both worlds. We're very lucky in that we can play a show at Death By Audio in Brooklyn with a crazy hip hop group, and then fly over to Seattle and play PAX with The Minibosses. They're both worlds that I love, but balance is really the key. It's always important to log off of Reddit once in a while to get some fresh air with some hot, sweaty kids."
Leigh Alexander is Gamasutra's news director and authors the Sexy Videogameland blog. Her monthly column at Kotaku deals with cultural issues surrounding games and gamers. She can be reached at leighalexander1 AT gmail DOT com.
Photos by: Marjorie Becker